Thursday, January 29, 2009

China's public diplomacy /Japan Times

Monday, Dec. 31, 2007

China's public diplomacy

China's public, or soft-power, diplomacy has traditionally consisted of "people's diplomacy," meaning the cultivation of people friendly to China within other countries. Under this method, China would nurture people sympathetic to its ideas within a country and use these figures to exert influence on the country's upper echelons or political leadership.

This modus operandi, however, belongs to the realm of socialist revolutionary diplomacy; while its legacy is still evident in some aspects of Chinese diplomacy, it is no longer the central pillar of China's soft-power diplomacy. Indeed, an analysis of recent developments suggests that China's soft-power diplomacy has at least four strands:

The first is "quiet diplomacy" designed to convey the message that China, as a major power, does not pose a threat to surrounding countries. In the late 1970s, for example, when Deng Xiaoping steered China down the road to modernization, there was growing anxiety around the world about what kind of country China might become.

Deng coined the term xiaokang (modest comfort) to signify that he wanted to make China a society in which everyone could be moderately well-off and to convey the image that China would not necessarily pursue a path of national wealth and military power.

The frequent use in recent times of the term heping jueqi (peaceful rise) is also related to China's soft-power diplomacy. This expression is designed to plant in people's minds the notion that China wishes to become a major power not by hardline means that push others away but by peaceful means that promote friendship with other countries. China created this soft image to counter arguments that it represents a threat to other nations. This is one aspect of China's recent public diplomacy.

As China emerges as a major power, its desire to present itself as a responsible, upstanding nation has come to form the second strand of its public diplomacy. An example of this is China's determined public relations campaign to highlight its efforts to tackle environmental and food-safety issues, which is intended to show that China is fulfilling its responsibilities as a major power.

China's enthusiastic transmission of Chinese culture through the establishment of Confucius Institutes around the world is another manifestation of its efforts to showcase its cultural sophistication and reassure people that its drive to gain major-power status is based not simply on military and economic might but also on sound foundations of tradition and culture.

In other words, China is attempting to project to the world the image of a Westernized, modernized country.

Campaigns to persuade citizens to adopt the custom of forming an orderly line when waiting for a bus and to dissuade them from spitting on the street can be considered part of an effort to ensure that China's image as a Westernized, modernized country is not tarnished in the buildup to the Beijing Olympics.

The third characteristic of China's public diplomacy is the country's linking of diplomacy's external and internal effects. The opera "First Emperor" is a case in point. Backed by the Chinese government, this production had the external effects of highlighting China's cultural sophistication to the world and providing Chinese musicians and performers with a stage to showcase their talents.

At the same time, one cannot help but assume that the government also wanted the production to have a domestic political impact — namely, that the praise from abroad for a production by Chinese people would help to restore Chinese pride.

The fourth aspect of China's public diplomacy that cannot be ignored is that this diplomacy is connected with the issue of the legitimacy of China's socialist government and of the Communist Party. China counters Western countries' assertions about the importance of the ideas of democracy and human rights, for example, with its doctrine of noninterference in countries' internal affairs. This is part of China's public diplomacy.

At the same time, as an extension of its idea of heping yanbian (peaceful evolution), China has developed the theory that Western attempts to foist the concepts of democracy and human rights upon it reveal the West's strategic goal of regime change in China. Using this theory, China is trying to make the case that Western countries' espousal of democracy and human rights reflects not simply their desire to share universal values but also their strategic objectives.

China's frequent raising of historical issues in its relations with Japan is also a part of its public diplomacy. It is true, of course, that Japan's past aggression provokes strong feelings among the Chinese populace and that, to some extent, the Chinese government has no choice but to reflect these feelings by making questions of historical perception a diplomatic and political issue. Transcending this factor, however, the raising of historical issues intersects with questions concerning the Chinese Communist Party's legitimacy and basic perception of history.

China's battle against Japanese invasion enables the Chinese government to highlight — more symbolically and more clearly than any other episode — the narrative of how the Communist Party overcame semi-colonial rule, resisted Western aggression, and built a new China.

Raising these issues gives China an advantage in bilateral negotiations by putting Japan on the defensive and, in relations with third countries, enables China to frame Japan as the aggressor or culprit and itself as the victim. Many observers are convinced that China uses historical issues in this way to further its strategic goals.

As we have seen, China is now highly adept at using a range of public diplomacy tools. This is in the long tradition of Chinese diplomacy, as well as a reflection of socialist ideology. It also constitutes a new face of Chinese diplomacy as the country assumes major-power status.

Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, is Japan Foundation president.


  1. As an avid reader of the Japan Times, I thought that this article was
    interesting, but the professor was writing from a very pro-China
    stance. While his article is a discussion of Chinese diplomacy, and
    how soft power is affecting the Chinese-World relationship, the writer
    makes no mention of the negative aspects associated with Chinese
    diplomacy or with the views that China proclaims to the rest of the
    For example, the first point that the author mentions would be how
    China is using peaceful means to promote friendship with other
    countries. I don't think that this is necessarily the case, especially
    given China's relationship with Japan. The author later mentions how
    China is using a victimist mentality in regards to its issues with
    Japan. Whatever historical issues there might exist, I think that this
    attitude is defeatist and as long as China has it, there will always
    remain a grudge between the two peoples of this nation. The worsening
    relations with Japan demonstrate that China, despite its soft power
    diplomacy, cannot reach out to its closest neighbor. Effectively,
    China is by itself, impeding on reaching a peaceful agreement with the

    The other relevant point the author raised would be China attempting
    to tackle the numerous enviromental and social problems it has created
    within itself. The author mentions how China has attempted to tackle
    its food and toy problems, but even by reading the Japan times
    regularly, anybody can see that the food scandals that have rocked
    China's industries continued well after the time this article was
    written. For example, I know that in Japanese, poisonous gyoza
    (dumplings) have been found on numerous occasions to come from China.
    I know that in the US, with the lead-toy scandal, this is an issue
    that China will have to tackle as well. Given that this article was
    written in an optomistic limelight before the Olympics, I can
    understand where this writer might be coming from. However, it was
    only 3 days after the Olympics ended that Beijing lifted the
    self-imposed smog rules, and Chinese factories continue to pollute the
    country and the rest of the world. It doesn't seem that China is
    making progress on any of the internal issues that it needs to tackle,
    and as a result, I think that the author's argument of China having an
    image of using soft-power diplomacy really isn't applicable today. I
    think that the best course for China to take to show the world that is
    commited to 'friendly relations' and 'a desire to prevent itself as a
    responsible...nation' would be for China to improve relations with its
    neighbors, particularly Japan. Additionally, by taking steps to ensure
    that the goods China produces for both domestic comsumption and
    exports are safe would also be a positive step in the right direction.

  2. After reading the China’s Public Diplomacy article, it made me think about Taiwan-China relations. The article noted that China does not want to be perceived as a threat to its neighboring countries. However, from Taiwan’s perspective, China has been a threat to them since the since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. It has only been since May of 2008 that relations between China and Taiwan have begun to improve.
    In a recent BBC news article Chinese Pandas arrive in Taiwan(,) as part of Chinese public diplomacy, they have sent over two pandas named “Tuan Tuan” and “Yuan Yuan,” which mean “reunion.” The significance of Taiwan receiving the pandas shows that the relationship between the two can be considered as improving. When we were discussing in class about the means of public diplomacy, “cultural exchanges of people to people” was mentioned. However, I that is not always the case. The Chinese have used “Panda diplomats” before. One of the best examples would be the pandas at the National Zoo in Washington, DC. Pandas were given as a present during the Nixon administration. During the 1960s and 1970s, pandas were used a diplomatic tool. It seems that pandas can be used still as diplomatic tools to help improve relations and project a positive image.
    What I want to note is that when thinking about cultural diplomacy, countries have various objects that can be used as a diplomatic tool. China has pandas and Japan has Hello Kitty ( . These objects and items can spark the interests of the general public for a period of time, but will they be truly understood as a diplomatic item meant to “promote understanding between two countries and improve relationships” or will they just become “that cute object from that one country”?

  3. To Manith:

    It's interesting to point out the public diplomacy through national, or other, symbols. I would venture to say that, whether it is a panda or Hello Kitty, these very simple gestures can go a long way in forming endearing ties between governments and publics in given situations and climates. In the case of the pandas at the National Zoo in D.C., I think you would be hard-pressed to say that these pandas are just that one cute item from that one country. As part of going to the zoo, you now see a huge attraction that provides an education experience about China that is far removed from the economic and political issues that divide the U.S. and Chinese governments. Just think about how many millions of people have gone through the zoo since the Nixon administration woefully departed the White House.

    To YuanYuan's article:

    I agree with Diana's read on the "pro-China" slant of the article, but it raises a number of questions and issues regarding a credibility gap for China's public diplomacy. First, China is a rising "major power" and with that there is a lot of reporting on its rapid military expansion. While it is understandable that the military force capacity might not match up with the territorial demands of the Chinese landscape, you can only develop so many offensive weapons that project power before there develops a credibility gap such as that of the United States between these public diplomacy pillars like xiaokang and heping jueqi. Under Deng Xiaoping, China successfully navigated the public diplomacy gauntlet in this regard, but there already exists significant coverage of the human rights crackdowns and other public diplomacy setbacks. While the policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of others may be a public diplomacy tactic, this has not accorded China great worldwide support. Rather, a credibility gap exists where China is seen as quiet or mute on human rights and other hot button issues in countries where it is more interested in finding the natural and other resources to feed its unprecedented growth. I'm not judging, but if this is a public diplomacy tactic, I think the powers that be should consider a course change or at least an adjustment.

    One last comment on China's public diplomacy considerations is an observation I have from my experience in Sierra Leone, which also carries lessons for public diplomacy writ large. While there is a major shift in public diplomacy to acknowledge and address not just governments, but also national publics, there must also be an emphasis on considerations of what a country's citizens and companies do overseas. I was in Sierra Leone over the summer and there was popular discontent with the Chinese in the country even though the governments have shared positive relations since Sierra Leone became the first country to recognize the PRC in the early 1970s (I believe it was 1971). This is the case because the Chinese (ostensibly Chinese private citizens in Sierra Leone to turn a profit) run hotels and other places were viewed as mistreating local employees and using China's backing to gain unfair advantages in contracts, etc. Though Sierra Leone is not exactly at the top of the international agenda, if there is such a thing, this situation can be seen as a microcosm of the criticism China faces in its dealings in Sudan, but also in Central Asia, where economic and political priorities are seen to supplant the rule of law and other buzz words with which governments typically seek to align themselves.